There was a brisk breeze blowing, but it was a sunny morning as we sailed into the great harbor at Syracuse and perhaps we had something of the same experience of those first Greek colonists from Corinth who arrived more than 2,700 years ago to their new land. Cautious people, they settled on the small offshore island of Ortygia where archaeological excavations have indicated there was already a settlement of native huts. I doubt that they suspected their town was going to become the largest city in area of the Greek world as well as one of the three most populous. Very quickly, however, the town began to grow and to spread over to the mainland. We only had a few hours and knew we could just hit the high points. Modern buildings cover much of this Greek city, but many archaeological parks have been preserved.
First, we headed for the great catacombs of St. John with thousands of rock-cut tombs about 20 feet underground. Our group was the first to arrive and the vast echoing galleries were ours alone. Wide street-like corridors ran like main arteries through the cemetery with smaller roads branching off at right angles, a real city of the dead, though, fortunately, the skeletons had long ago disappeared. Modest cubicles and big chapels comprised this democracy of the dead.
Next, it was off to the central archaeological park, the site of the major public buildings of the town: the huge Greek theatre which was being worked on for an upcoming spring drama festival; the even bigger Roman amphitheatre built much later after the Romans conquered Sicily; the 650-foot long altar of King Hieron II on which hundreds of bulls could be sacrificed at the same time; and, most striking, the great underground quarries from which most of the building stone of Syracuse was extracted 2,500 years ago.
Finally, some of us visited the spectacular archaeological museum with its rich collection of finds from hundreds of graves and dozens of excavations around town—huge pieces of sculpture and architecture were side-by-side small figurines of worshippers, offered by the hundreds in local sanctuaries. Others did a walking tour around Ortygia and saw a mid 5th-century B.C. Greek temple to Athena converted in the Middle Ages to the Christian cathedral of the city while elsewhere they admired the early 6th-century B.C. temple to Apollo, one of the earliest fully stone temples in the Greek world. Then, it was back to the Island Sky for our noon departure from one of the great cities of the ancient Mediterranean.